The Power of the Greek Example

Germany took a hard line with Greece this summer as much out of fear of political as economic contagion. Even if wiping out Greek debts were easily affordable, it would quickly have become prohibitively expensive when voters in Portugal, Italy and Spain demanded the same deal.

The Portuguese elections are tomorrow (Sunday), and will provide an indication of whether the German strategy worked. This has been a bad year for psephology, but that said the available poll data (courtesy of the Telegraph) suggests that the lesson of Greece has not been lost on Portuguese voters.

When the Greek drama began in June, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho belt-tightening government was in parlous political shape. Only around 30% of the country supported the government, and the Socialists were drawing support by demanding a surge in government spending in defiance of the Lords of the Eurozone.

As the Greeks have been brought publicly to heel over the past few months, Portuguese voters have apparently taken notice. The Socialists have faded enough to give the government a reasonable shot at holding power.


Word of the Day for Americans: “Vacation”

I sent an email to a European colleague this summer and got the following automatic message in return:

Dr. So and So is on holiday for the month of July. Consistent with university policy, all email sent to her during this period is automatically deleted. If you wish to contact her, please do so next month.

Now there’s a place that understands what it means to be on vacation. Can you imagine coming back to no email? Not receiving email during your vacation? I can’t, because I work in America.

Throughout my brief vacation I got email after email from Americans that opened with some variant of the phrase “I know you are on vacation, but”, as if making this statement somehow changed the fact that I was supposed to be on vacation. The worst offender was a committee chair who was told repeatedly that I would not be attending a meeting during my family vacation, but the day before the meeting nonetheless emailed me a 300-page long document with a note that read “I know you can’t attend the meeting because of your vacation, so I am sending you the material that we will be discussing so that you can email in your analysis of it for us”. I think she believed this was unusually accommodating on her part.

A friend had an even worse experience. He went on a family vacation to a remote area where he had no email or cell phone signal. When he returned two weeks later he found out that he had been demoted. While he was on vacation, his company had announced a re-organization. His boss said “I expected you to be calling me and emailing me every day communicating your vision of how you fit in with the new structure. When you didn’t I knew you weren’t really committed to the company.” Never mind that he couldn’t even have known that the re-org had happened and never mind even more than he was on freaking vacation.

Employees of the U.S. unite. Do not email your co-workers on vacation, ever. Do not call them or fax them or text them either. And if your boss asks you to do so, state firmly that your hard-working colleague is on vacation, and ask your colleague to do the same for you when the situation is reversed.

Capitalism is a mighty thing that can produce much good. But if we don’t place limits on it, it will eat our bodies, our souls and our families alive. So American workers, look up “vacation” in the dictionary, commit the words to memory and live by them always.

A Powerful Family Memoir of Opioid Addiction

51e0ZnJKRYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ Understanding America’s epidemic of prescription opioid and heroin addiction requires grasping certain statistics and trends, some of which I have highlighted in prior posts. At the same time, the stories of people on the front line must also be engaged if we are to truly understand the public health crisis of opioid addiction. I just finished reading a fine book of this sort which I want to recommend here: Saving Jake: When Addiction Hits Home.

The author, D’Anne Burwell, confounds the stereotypes of opioid addiction being a problem of urban ghettos and mean streets. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s heroin epidemic, the most recent wave of addiction has a solid foothold in white, middle-class suburbia. The Burwell family, with two dedicated parents, two promising, intelligent teenage children, a good income and good health insurance may seem utterly unlikely to be ravaged by opioid addiction. But by showing how even a family blessed with psychological and economic resources is not insulated from the epidemic, Burwell highlights the extraordinary power of opioid addiction over human behavior.

D’Anne’s once cheerful, friendly, successful and athletic son Jake begins to struggle in adolescence for reasons that are initially not clear to his parents. His grades slip, he becomes thinner and less healthy, and he drifts into a social network where troubles fall like rain. He always seems to have an explanation for his travails, and his parents are initially satisfied by his accounts, not least because they want to believe there is an innocuous reason for their son’s struggles.

But eventually they discover that Jake is addicted to Oxycontin. His poor grades as a freshman result in the loss of his scholarship. He tumbles downward from there, despite multiple stints in rehabs and numerous other chances to change. Burwell captures vividly the maddening nature of being a parent of an addicted child, both the sadness at seeing your offspring suffer and the hurt and rage at being manipulated and lied to. She learns over time the hard lesson that she cannot control her son anymore than he can control his drug use. But because she learns faster than he does, she lives in terror of the phone call that could come at any time informing her that her son has died of an overdose.

The book is commendably honest about how everyone in the Burwell family at one time or another responds to Jake’s problems in ways that are not constructive. But at the same time it’s impossible for readers not to admire the Burwells’ grit. The way D’Anne, her husband and her daughter hang in with Jake through years of agony defines for me the word “family”.

Many books of this genre define addicted people as having selfish personalities that come from being over-indulged by parents who can’t set limits. Burwell appropriately notes that this framework ignores the effect of addiction on family interactions. A parent who could once easily set limits may stop doing so because of fear that if they don’t rescue their loved one, they will overdose and die. Likewise, prior to the changes which persistent drug use exerts on the brain, an addicted person may have been selfless and giving; the constant felt need for drug can abolish that, producing the selfish behavior that may erroneously be labeled a pre-existing cause of drug use.

This isn’t a medical book and isn’t intended to be. If you want to learn about the naloxone overdose rescue drug, naltrexone therapy or methadone maintenance you should look at a different type of book. But if you are looking for a candid, well-written account of the human experience of loving someone who is addicted to opioids, this quietly powerful book will stay with you for a long time.

The Past is Another Country

An academic colleague once made an intriguing observation about his left wing, multicultural theory-influenced undergraduates (i.e., all of them…he taught at UC Santa Cruz). They were absolutely unforgiving when judging the past of their own culture but were resolutely opposed to making any judgments about other cultures existing today. For example, when learning about the lack of professional career opportunities for American women in the 1950s, they would denounce the vicious patriarchy of the period, raging that it stemmed from an utterly horrible culture full of utterly horrible people who should have known better. But when asked about the same lack of professional career opportunities for women right now in, say, Mali or Uzbekistan, they would maintain that it would be oppressive and imperialistic of them to pass judgment: After all, how can people raised in one culture possibly understand or evaluate a completely different culture?

My colleague noted correctly that his students were showing an extreme lack of compassion for the past. It’s naïve and self-congratulatory for someone alive in 2015 to look back at 1955 or 1825 or any other prior era and assume that all the stupidity of the period would have been overcome if only they’d been there to set the benighted masses straight. It is equally naïve and self-congratulatory not to grapple with the fact that 50 or 100 years from now people will look back on some things we take for granted today and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

I sometimes made use of my colleague’s observation in psychotherapy when I was counselling adolescents and young adults who were being driven crazy by their grandparents, e.g., “I hate the way Grandma is always talking about Jesus and nagging me to go to church!”, “My grandfather won’t listen to me when I tell him not to keep all his money in his house – he’s completely paranoid about banks!”.
I would suggest to these young people to think of their grandparents as immigrants from another country: the past. We understand that people from other countries can have trouble adjusting to our society, that they may struggle to fit in and that it hurts them to have the values they grew up with rejected or surpassed. Seen in this light, our elders are easier to understand and to feel for, and when we ourselves are old we will need the same compassion from the young as the world we knew is replaced by the world they make.

Weekend Film Recommendation ***With Interview of Star Brad Rowe***: Purgatory

bannerOne of the happy outcomes of the cable television revolution was that more stations were competing to brand themselves with audiences, and one method some of them chose was to start making their own films. The budgets were not as large as what Hollywood might provide, but the results were often more original. Such is the case with Uli Edel’s unconventional western Purgatory, which debuted in 1999 on Turner Network Television and has attracted a growing base of fans ever since.

Purgatory opens as a classic oater, with glorious vistas, exciting gunfights, noble sheriffs and vicious outlaws. But then the film takes an entirely novel, Twilight Zone-eque turn as a group of bank robbers gets lost in a sandstorm and arrives in the strangely peaceful town of Refuge, where a sheriff who doesn’t even carry a gun (Sam Shepard) unhesitatingly welcomes them to stay. The town has a saloon that no one enters, a church that every single resident attends every day, and some strangely familiar-looking locals, all of whom are watched over by a wizened Native American medicine man. I am not going to tell you more than that for two reasons. First, I don’t want to spoil this fine film for you and second, I need the space this week for an RBC first: An interview with the star of a recommended film.

BradBrad Rowe is the emotional center of the film as “Sonny” the one member of the pack of snarling bad guys who is a decent, vulnerable human being to whom the audience can relate. Brad has since gone on to become an expert in drug and crime policy, working with Mark Kleiman’s BOTEC consulting firm. I am grateful for him for taking the time to talk about Purgatory.

Brad, you’ve been in many movies and television shows, but say that this film was probably the most fun you ever had as an actor. What was so enjoyable about it?

First of all I was a very young actor and had hardly been around the block. Uli Edel was kind enough to have me come in to read for one of the lead roles in a project that already had Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts and Randy Quaid attached. After getting the role, when I arrived for the cast read through, my eyes were as big as saucers. These guys were legends to me and it was really endearing that they all took me under their collective wing. And then we got to the work of training, which included riding professional stunt horses, learning how to quick draw guns, staging screen fist fights and perfecting our cowboy swagger in period clothes. Lots of down time too where the other actors and crew would share fun stories about the countless projects and people they had experienced over the decades. I was in heaven. There was something magical to the story telling as well. Gordon Dawson had written a solid screenplay and TNT was really invested in making that story come to life. I think we all knew we were working on something special. As it turned out the project was well produced and promoted, so it found an audience. It wasn’t until I had been around for a while that I truly appreciated how many wonderful professionals had come together for a few months to make some movie magic. And of course the genre of the Western has become more of a scarcity recently so that time holds a bit of additional nostalgia for me.

I could imagine an actor first reading Dawson’s script and thinking “This strange plot may just not work for an audience expecting a traditional western”. Did you have that worry or did the story hook you right away?

I personally didn’t have any reservations. It felt like the super-western with a cast of characters that spanned the storied history of the wild west. The supernatural twist was an essential tool for exposing everyone in the story’s true character – warts and all in some cases. What resonated for me was how close that character was to me at that point in my life. I was new to Hollywood and eager to learn and in many cases found myself swimming with sharks. Sonny was doing his best throughout the story to stay true to his values but finding mentors who shared the same compass was nearly impossible.

Do you think of Purgatory as a religious film?

I do. There are both themes of spiritual redemption and rigid religious observance. Churchgoing is a central to community life in Refuge and it is the place where individuals who have lived characteristically sinful lives get a shot at redemption through faithful observance of a very strict protocol. It is the adherence to that difficult path that causes the biggest challenge for several of the main characters. Forgiveness, selflessness, and sacrifice all play heavy in the story as well. I don’t want to make the movie seem overtly fire and brimstone but it hits the audience pretty squarely. Thankfully Purgatory is the uplifting kind of spiritual journey though.

Shepard“Larger than life” is an overused phrase, but it applies to the playwright-actor-director Sam Shepard. What is he like in person?
Continue Reading…

The U.S. is at a 13-Year Low in Imprisonment

Earlier this week, I gave an optimistic read on the state of criminal justice reform in response to Max Ehrenfreud’s more pessimistic take (Ed Kilgore summarizes the exchange nicely and adds his own thoughts here)

The news today from the Department of Justice belongs to the optimists: The U.S. imprisonment rate has fallen for the sixth straight year. In 2014, the rate fell to a level not seen since 2001

Last year, Nancy LaTourneau wrote a thoughtful piece on cynicism versus hope in politics. In it, she contrasted my optimistic take on de-incarceration for Washington Post in 2014 with a gloomy bit of doom-saying at Think Progress. Remarkably, both pieces were based on the same 2013 incarceration data.

Nancy wrote at the time that she was choosing hope over cynicism. Today’s imprisonment numbers affirm that stance. Without faith in our ability to change our country we will surrender to despair and never build the kind of criminal justice system we need.

Criminal Justice Reform is Alive and Well

Max Ehrenfreund reads the eulogy for criminal justice reform in America:

The right-left alliance on criminal justice seems to be breaking apart. Sentencing reform is stalled in the Senate. Conservative commentators are pronouncing ominously about a phantom crime wave. Donald Trump’s old-fashioned, tough-on-crime presidential campaign is a smashing success.

In fact, there was never much of a consensus to begin with.

It’s a cliche to suggest that someone in Washington get outside the D.C. bubble and see what’s really going on in the country. Nonetheless, that’s my advice for Ehrenfreund. I just spent two days in Big Sky, Montana at the first 24/7 sobriety summit. Eight state attorneys general attended in person and 30 more sent representatives. Because criminal justice is primarily a state rather than federal matter, what these men and women think matters infinitely more for reform than what the people Ehrenfreund cites think (e.g., Donald Trump, whom I only heard mentioned here as a punchline).

Mostly, people attended to talk about 24/7 sobriety, a management strategy for alcohol-involved offenders that reduces crime, problem drinking and incarceration. Those who had adopted it shared lessons learned, others came because they want to try the same thing in their state and need advice and information.

Turning to broader reform issues, we also heard a terrific talk by Jim Seward, chief counsel to Governor Dennis Daugaard, about South Dakota’s massive 2013 criminal jusicet reform. The state changed criminal penalties, invested in alternatives to incarceration, boosted mental health and addiction services, and invested in re-entry services for released prisoners. At the the time they were projected to see their prison population increase by 25% over the next 10 years, and Pew Foundation projected the reforms would reduce the growth to only 6% (i.e., less than overall population growth). We learned from Jim that even this encouraging projection was too pessimistic: South Dakota’s prison population is going down.

Governor Daugaard was re-elected by a huge margin and is now one of the most popular governors in the country. That says a lot about where American voters are right now on criminal justice reform, including in conservative states.

I leave Big Sky this morning with optimism in my heart about criminal justice reform in America, no matter how many people say they are going to vote for a guy with a hairdo that ought to be a felony.

A Conversation about America’s Opioid Addiction Epidemic

The word “heroin” strikes terror into the heart of most Americans, with good reason. But the increasing heroin problem in the U.S. is actually just a small part of a much longer and deeper epidemic that was started by doctors and pharmaceutical companies beginning in the late 1990s. Paul Costello, a terrific interviewer, asked me to chart this history and review current policy options in this episode of his show One-on-One.

A New Book on the Rise of the Smart on Crime Movement

As a field, criminology pays insufficient attention to two things: political science and political conservatives. The former oversight derives from the siloization of social science in most universities, the latter emerges from the field being almost uniformly left-wing, such that conservatives can be dismissed as the unthinking enemy rather than understood as political and policy actors. Fortunately, Professor Garrick Percival has written a book that overcomes both of these problems: Smart on Crime: The Struggle to Build a Better American Penal System.

The book analyzes the rise of discontent with mass incarceration and harsh criminal penalties among politicians and the public. At the federal level and in state after state, strange bedfellows have made common cause to begin forging a less restrictive, less punitive and less expensive criminal justice system. The book has plenty of wonky detail regarding the specific programs and policies that have been adopted (supported with many citations that will be familiar to RBC readers). But I think its unique contribution is how it digs into the politics behind the Smart on Crime movement. The book explains better than anything else I have read where this movement came from and why it emerged when it did.

Quite rightly, Percival focuses heavily on conservatives as the gatekeepers of reform. In case studies of three well-chosen states (California, Ohio and Texas) Percival documents that if conservatives lead on criminal justice reform, liberals enthusiastically join the cause, but when conservatives veto it, reform is feeble or non-existent. Percival explains this as a hangover from the high crime era, when voters got tired of liberal explanations for and responses (and non-responses) to crime and went in search of politicians who were “tough on crime”. They found them mainly within the Republican Party, but also among some conservative Democrats as well (e.g., California Governor Gray Davis was a wholly owned subsidiary of the prison guards’ union). Even though crime has fallen enormously in the past 20 years, much of the political class still fears that reform initiatives will be tarred as “hug a thug” policy.

But like Nixon going to China, a coalition of Christian Evangelicals, economic conservatives, libertarians and tough guys with second thoughts had the credibility to lead much of the Republican Party to embrace criminal justice reform. The book also documents the influence of policy entrepreneurs like Mark Levin and Right on Crime, who have been highly successful at changing the terms of the debate. The only dead-enders, Percival notes, have been some prosecutors who are as out of touch with cuurent popular sentiment as many soft on crime liberal politicians were in the 1970s.

Throughout, the book impressed me by not yielding to simple explanations, including the theory that the economic downturn of 2008 caused the move toward de-incarceration. Percival notes that some facts support this explanation, but many more do not: Incarceration rates rocketed up in recession after recession in the 1980s and 1990s and Texas began its recent reforms with its budget in the black. Likewise, while acknowledging that people’s feelings and beliefs about crime can in some respects be divorced from facts and manipulable by politicians, the book also makes clear that America’s multi-decade crime wave was a real phenomenon that hurt many real human beings, creating a constituency for many of the tough policies the U.S. has today. More simply, just because the public is panicking doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing is really wrong.

I had some quibbles with some of the details and arguments in the book, but none of them changed my fundamental view that this is a volume well worth reading. If you want to learn about the smart on crime movement, this book should be your first port of call. Kudos to Dr. Percival, whose work I look forward to following in the future.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Mating Season

If I told you I was going to recommend a funny 1951 movie about class differences, you would naturally expect something British. But this week’s film recommendation shows that post-war Americans too could also mine the comic possibilities of people from different economic strata rubbing shoulders: The Mating Season.

The plot of this mistitled little gem: Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) is a widow whose hamburger stand has gone bankrupt. She embarks on a long journey to visit her son Val, whom she and her hardworking husband were able to put through college. Val is a low level white collar manager (John Lund) trying to impress the big boss so that he can get ahead. After Val meets cute with the ravishing Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney), daughter of a wealthy ambassador, the two fall in love and a wedding is quickly arranged, coincidentally on the day that Ellen is to arrive. Before you can say “screwball comedy” the young bride mistakes her dowdy, working class new mother-in-law for a maid, and the mother decides to play along, moving in to the new couple’s apartment!

This is a film about how working class people can be both proud of their origins yet ashamed of them at the same time, particularly as conveyed through Lund’s character. Val both loves his mother and is embarrassed of her (His chemistry with Ritter is so natural it’s hard to believe they weren’t actually mother and son). Similarly, he both despises his rich, crummy boss yet also can’t resist the impulse to flatter and tug his forelock in front of him.

The movie is also wise about how wealth makes some people generous and turns others into snobs. I don’t know if it was in the filmmaker’s minds or not, but it’s also intriguing to watch in terms of gender roles: Even though Val has little money and Maggie is rich, they both assume he will be the sole provider and the couple end up in debt as a result.

But despite all that, this isn’t A Place in the Sun; the film’s accent is on laughs rather than dark drama and The Mating Season is delightful on those terms. Miriam Hopkins is hilariously over-dramatic as Tierney’s pampered and entitled mother, and Ritter, as she showed in so many other films (including prior RBC recommendation Pickup on South Street), can deliver a wisecrack out of the side of her mouth with the best of them. She was so good at being a character actor that Hollywood didn’t seem able to see her in any other light: Despite being the star here, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Roger Ebert used to point out how few Hollywood films take work and household budgets seriously. In the movies, single mom cocktail waitresses have huge apartments in Manhattan, architects are obligated only to look at a drafting board in their den in the evening rather than go into an office, and no one is ever shown paying their electric bill or doing their taxes. The Mating Season is a welcome exception to this rule, as Ellen works out how to deal with her failing hamburger stand, hitchhikes to save on travel expenses, scrambles for the money to pay her bills (including having to work for two days as an office temp for “Mr. Pinchbottom”), finds affordable-but-tatty lodgings and otherwise scrimps and saves. Throughout Ellen’s struggles, the film appropriately portrays as noble her and her husband’s ability to have afforded college for their son despite their modest means, rather than being condescending toward the aspirations that millions of post-war working class Americans shared.

Director Mitchell Leisen was not a consistently strong artist, but he was good enough when, as here, he had a strong script from which to work. The Mating Season’s is by Walter Reisch, Richard Breen and Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator). In addition to some memorable zingers, the trio’s script also has some funny 1950s style sexual innuendo. This team went on to win an Academy Award for screenwriting together two years later for Titanic, but they could just as deservedly won for The Mating Season.

The Mating Season is American in style, but stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Ealing Studio comedies that alternated between having the audience laugh about class differences and nod their heads in recognition of the truths we so often don’t openly discuss.

p.s. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can watch this film for free here.